December 25, 2011

Gratitude for a Wonderful New Year

Here is a wonderful video a dear friend of mine sent me.  It is a great way to start a new day--not to mention a wonderful way to start the new year. Watch it full screen if you can.

Much love to all of my readers, friends, and family.

December 13, 2011

Curiosity For Curiosity’s Sake…

I have long been curious to learn. My greatest passion is in trying to figure things out. Simply put, I love solving puzzles. Not so much crossword and jigsaw puzzles, although they provide a good analogy. One approach to learning is to understand the pieces so that you can understand the whole. The question is, is my passion for learning good for its own sake? Or is the value of learning only evident in the way that the knowledge is used? Did curiosity really kill the cat? Is there more to it?

I believe curiosity is crucial for our well-being. Let me explain. Curiosity and the need to learn has been with us for the vast majority of our existence. It has been a necessary “tool” for our survival. Think before there was anything like a Google search, or before writing. The only means of accumulating knowledge was by passing it via word of mouth or by learning it for ourselves. There was an obvious evolutionary advantage to learn where edible plants could be found, where the deer are, or where the predator is. Written history goes back only about 5,000 years, but that is a short time considering our approximately 50,000 year existence as humans in our modern form (conservative estimate). Thus my argument is that we are evolutionarily adapted to learning for ourselves and have only recently acclimated to an abundance of knowledge.

I bring this together with my own experiences to extrapolate that our mental, physical, and dare I say spiritual health would greatly benefit from stirring up those “curiosity” genes through experiential learning. Lower down I describe a few activities that I have done with great success.

I found that tapping into this awareness of the world around me has made me a much happier person. No, I haven’t made any huge discoveries to benefit humanity (yet :-) ), but I have discovered that a red fox lives near my house. To me, seeing the fox made me really content in that moment, but also deeply grateful with a fulfilled heart—as if I had just taken a good dose of vitamins for the soul. To those that have never seen an animal in the wild (besides common squirrels, chipmunks, etc.) it is an experience that I can’t explain in words.

Our recent acclimation to knowledge-at-our-fingertips (literally… think Google) has a few side effects. One of them is what Richard Louv coined “nature-deficit disorder.” The symptoms of this disorder include behavioral and physical problems as described in the simple article Parents: 10 Reasons Kids Need Fresh Air by Kevin Coyle. But this is not limited to children. Look at yourself and look at the people around you. So many of us are just walking zombies. We go through a blind whirl each day, doing one thing only so that we can get to the next. Going to work only so that we can go on vacation. Living so that we may one day be able to die happy. But why not be happy and live fully now?

Learning about the wilderness through my own observation and exploration has been a key to helping me feel fully alive and present. I am not a hermit in some cabin miles from “society.” I am in front of my computer, building electrical circuits (yes indeed), and reading about the great inventions of Nikola Tesla. Technology is awesome, but we shouldn’t forget how we humans have lived for the vast majority of our existence. I realized that those vitamins I described above are actually essential for our well-being.

Here are some things you can do:

Learn the basics about your knowledge of place—where you live. Keep in mind that answers to these questions used to be common knowledge even for children. It’s like asking a city kid what the McDonalds "M" means. These are just some questions to get you started, but if you want to see a more comprehensive set, see Jon Young’s Tourist Test, part of his Kamana Naturalist Training Program. As you try some of what I suggest below, use resources such as field guides and the internet to help you out along the way. Because the internet (and even books) can have faulty information, it is imperative to use multiple guides and to talk to knowledgeable people for confirming what you learn—especially if it involves edible or medicinal plants.

  • First it’s always good to form a basic awareness of the natural hazards where you live. Poison Ivy? Stinging insects? Disease carrying ticks? Venomous snakes? What are the most poisonous plants in your area? How would you identify these? This is not meant to scare you away from the woods. Once you are aware of the common hazards, you can quickly learn how to avoid them so that you can enjoy the wilderness without worrying. It’s kind of like saying “what’s the worst that can happen?” to help you realize that there isn’t as much to worry about as you might have thought. My questions here are definitely not exhaustive though.
  • What can you use to help with some of these hazards? For example, what local plants help with bee stings or poison ivy rashes? How do you prevent yourself from getting a tick disease?
  • What three local plant species are easy to identify, abundant, and healthy to include in your diet? Only ever ingest something wild when you are 150% sure you know what it is. There are several edible species that have poisonous look-alikes, so be SURE you are aware of these hazards. There are way fewer poisonous species than edible ones (at least in New England), but it only takes one to get you pretty sick. I only make it sound really scary so that you don't do something silly and then blame me for it. Just use common sense and a lot of resources. You'll be fine.
  • What do the tracks of the five most common mammal species in your area look like?
  • What are the songs of the ten most common bird species in your area?
  • Track some mysteries: Find an animal trail and follow it. Follow the growth of a seedling. Where did the seed come from? What did the land around your house look like 20 years ago? 100? 200? (see Tom Wessel’s Reading the Forested Landscape).

Go to a sit-spot. Find a place not to far from your house, where you can sit quietly and observe nature. If you live in a city, go to a rooftop, or in a park. Try to find a place that is away from other people, but if you can’t, then try not to interact with anyone. Just sit quietly and observe. Find a place not too far from home so that it is easier to go regularly. Although it is good to stick with one spot, find a new place when you are away from home. I’ve found that after quieting your mind and body, the natural flow resumes in about 15 minutes (obviously depending on where you are and how quite you can be). This is how I saw the red fox, and how many natural mysteries have opened up. Going for at least 30 minutes every day for the last year and a half has been by far one of the best ways I have connected to my curiosity for the natural world. Try out the 30 day sit-spot challenge. Here is another link.

Here is a video that nicely summarizes the sit-spot experience.

Leave all your worries at home because while you are at your sitspot nothing else really matters. My sitspot has helped realize that I am just a spec in the history of the universe, giving me a little humor about life.

For curiosity’s sake, and for your well-being, go outside and learn a bit about the natural world where you live. Not too long ago your species had a first hand reliance on it. Tap into your genes. Live fully and stop being a zombie of a person. You’ve got one life, why not live it up?

November 30, 2011

Another link on Human Ecology

This is from the website of plant taxonomist Arthur Haines and the Delta Institute of Natural History--

"... a source for New England plant taxonomy and nomenclature, wild food and medicine instruction, primitive living skills mentoring, and natural history lessons."

November 28, 2011

The Ultimate Human Ecology: Questions, Conservation, and the Meaning of Life

Here is one of my takes on Human Ecology:

I struggled through three years of ambiguity until I finally heard College of the Atlantic’s (COA) founding president define Human Ecology. As Ed Kaelber said at Convocation 2010, “[No] matter how good you are in your chosen field, not much will be done unless you can figure out a way to work and find others who have different points of view and equal expertise from a different direction, and work with them. And I think that’s probably a reasonable definition of what we mean by Human Ecology.” Human Ecology is a way to “save the world” by learning as much as we can about something, and then learning to reach out and connect with other disciplines, bringing them together. Applying multiple disciplines allows for a panoramic view of an issue. Since most problems are multifaceted, we must solve them by using multiple disciplines. It is a simple but useful definition that I look forward to applying in my life after COA.

But this is not enough for me. Human Ecology is about solving problems, but how does it apply to my day-to-day life? I have found a way to apply Human Ecology internally, as a way to better understand the world. There are ultimate roots to all disciplines and beliefs, and these roots are the foundation for my theory of the "Ultimate Human Ecology."

Through the classes I have taken at COA—in addition to my own life experiences—I have noticed two paradigms at the root of all disciplines and beliefs. The first is scientific, logical, and causal; the other is spiritual, intuitive, and transcendental. One or the other is the basic worldview of any discipline or belief. Examples of the former include: the sciences, history, math, and social studies—mostly with external applications. Examples of the latter include: most art-based disciplines, emotions, and faith-based beliefs—mostly with internal applications. From hereon I will refer to them as the “spiritual (footnote 1)” and “scientific (footnote 2)” worldviews. Applying both worldviews is what I call the Ultimate Human Ecology, or the internalized form of Human Ecology.

The fire analogy can be used for certain aspects of our inner worldview--we each have our own "fire" to tend. I may go more into the role of "fire" in another blog post.

Historically, these two worldviews have been separated and people have taken sides, one usually prevailing over the other. Organized religion was the first prominent word of authority, science more recently replacing that. But there has always been a great tension between the two, often leading to arguments regarding what can be taught in schools or the quiet death of an aboriginal culture. But this societal as well as internal conflict only exists when these worldviews are forced together.

Another way to explain these two worldviews is by presenting an allegory using symbolic extremes. Here is an example:

The sky was darkening as a Monk and a Scientist were traveling through a snowy forest. They paused for a moment as they heard something crunching through the wet snow to their right. A white tailed deer approached, getting close before darting off with an abrupt and sudden snort.
“It is not often we come so close to a deer,” the Monk voiced. “What a wonderful gift to see one with such beautiful antlers! Truly it must mean we have been good today.”
“The deer probably didn’t hear us because it was having a hard time walking through the snow and the wind was blowing the wrong way for it to have smelled us,” the Scientist replied. “Plus, the chances of running into a deer this time of day are much higher—but did you see that it still had its antlers? It is amazing to find a male deer that still has its antlers this late in the season! I wonder if that is because of hormonal imbalances.”

The Monk and the Scientist represent examples of the two worldviews on the same encounter with a deer. The Monk views the deer from the transcendental perspective that explains the occurrence of the deer based on feelings and unquestioned belief. He gains a fulfillment because he sees the deer as a sign that he has been good. The Scientist views the deer from a logical and questioning perspective that explains the deer encounter based on his prior knowledge and logical deduction. Nonetheless, he gets an equally satisfying reaction from his discovery of an anomaly in nature. In their own contexts, neither of them is inherently wrong since the Monk makes a claim that is useful towards his inner growth and the Scientist makes a claim intended to be used by others. But responding to the Monk with a scientific framework or responding to the Scientist with a spiritual framework could result in conflict.

There is no need for this age-long conflict between science and spirituality, but we cannot successfully incorporate these worldviews by melding them or compromising—that’s when the conflict arises. Each one is a different worldview; therefore it is important to view each one through its respective context. Context is key to any interdisciplinary approach, and it is especially important when dealing with these two extremes. As mentioned above, the Monk and Scientist each had separate applications for their claims. This is one way in which both worldviews can be applied to Human Ecology.

Human Ecology is about saving the world. But one of the keys to saving the world is the Human Ecology within us—or my theory of the Ultimate Human Ecology. The Ultimate Human Ecology is inherent in all of us, but most have slipped into one worldview and forgotten about the other simply because of the dominant worldview with which we were raised. Realizing our tendency to live with only one worldview is the first step towards successfully applying the Ultimate Human Ecology. The next step is to be aware of it with every decision we make.

An example of applying the Ultimate Human Ecology can be seen in the debates surrounding conservation biology, where decisions must be made. Once an animal or plant is labeled as endangered or threatened, the first question that should be asked is: why conserve it? This question is sometimes only covered by scientific reasoning, but sometimes ignored all together. Vaughan et al. (2005) presents an example of this in a paper about the conservation status of the Scarlet Macaw. Never once does Vaughan et al. directly say why it was important to save the Scarlet Macaw. Some papers do tell why it is important to save an endangered species, but it is usually explained with the scientific reasoning that the organism is important for the “proper (footnote 3)” functioning of the local, regional, or global ecology. But this is still just one worldview. Having been fortunate to see one in the wild myself, the Scarlet Macaw is a magnificent bird. Its colors are astounding! So of course I’d want to save this bird, but in scientific literature it is hard to justify conservation based on beauty. Aesthetics are part of why conservation is important.

Scarlet Macaw

It all comes down to both worldviews. We want to conserve animals and plants for food, for medicine, for their utilitarian value, for their beauty, because conserving them will in turn conserve lots of other organisms and biodiversity is something we like, and maybe sometimes it is as simple as conserving an organism because it feels right—whether or not we know why.

The Ultimate Human Ecology can also be applied outside of conservation biology. Ecologists try to solve ecological mysteries because it is a fun challenge. They also may be interested in solving ecological mysteries because they believe that the knowledge will be important to others in the future. These are just some examples of our roots of decisions in science. But as mentioned above, decisions in science begin with the questions we ask.

Tracker and survivalist Tom Brown Jr. presents a way to ask questions that can make it easier to apply the Ultimate Human Ecology. He suggests that there are two questions to every question one asks. The first one is, “What happened here?” which can be generalized as the “who, what, where, when, why, and how.” These types of questions lead to hypotheses that can then be elucidated using observation or experimentation. Examples include, why are there lots of moths in a certain area?  A hypothesis could be that the moths are attracted by the many white flowers in the area. Why is chlorophyll green? Why does the sun rise in the east? Why is there a war between countries X and Y? What can I do to decrease the rate of global climate change? These are all "What happened here?" questions, scientific worldview questions. The second question is "What does this mean to me?" What does it mean to me to know why there are so many moths in a certain area? What does it mean to me to know why chlorophyll is green or why the sun rises in the east? The answer to this question may be as simple as curiosity, or as complex as the motivation towards informing future decisions. At its root, though, this question arrives at the spiritual worldview where we can acknowledge our inherent humanness. Acknowledging our underlying humanness and being conscious of the reasons behind our questions and decisions is the Ultimate Human Ecology. Realizing this is a humbling notion regarding our connection to the world.

The same way that the spiritual worldview explains the underlying meaning behind our decisions and questions, it could also be taken to the underlying meaning of life. For example, we can say that we exist as a result of evolving DNA, but we can also appreciate the gift of that evolution. Thus our presence in the world has two sides: evolution and gratitude. Further examples of applying both worldviews can be shown through the allegory above. The Scientist might show more gratitude for the beauty of an encounter with a deer along with his scientific backing, and the Monk might show more appreciation for the factors like wind direction that led to the deer’s direction of travel along with his internal expression.

The Ultimate Human Ecology is recognizing both the transcendental and scientific qualities of each issue in the world. By recognizing them both we can learn from each and see the two without conflict. Good human ecologists should be aware of both worldviews and take whatever they can from either, acknowledging that these paradigms are not mutually exclusive but simply different ways of viewing the same world.

Stephen J. Gould provides a similar perspective with his principle of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). Gould (1999) describes NOMA in his book “Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.” His argument is similar to mine although he uses the term “religion” where I use the term “spirituality” even though “religion” is much more encompassing. Religion can include beliefs that extend beyond the personal level—beliefs that dictate what one should do. This allows religion to cross the planes between the scientific and spiritual worldviews. I respect religions and much of what they offer, but they require a much more complex debate in preventing worldview conflicts. That said, Gould’s principle of NOMA is similar to my theory of the Ultimate Human Ecology and I suggest his book as an important resource in this discussion.
The Ultimate Human Ecology is important to science. Good science requires scientists who are both passionate and humble about the enormity of the world and its mysteries. Good scientists should always be posing questions to better understand these mysteries. Understanding why they ask the questions that they do is critical for understanding the ultimate significance of what they do, and is therefore important for choosing what questions to answer. Remembering to ask Tom Brown Jr.’s second question of “what does this mean to me?” is an simple way to apply the Ultimate Human Ecology. Acknowledging that science is just one way of viewing the world, a scientist would gain a humility regarding our current knowledge, as well as allowing him or her to find another level of meaning to their work.

Exploring the mosses of my backyard in New York. I might never publish a scientific paper about these mosses, but my satisfactions with learning about them is all I need. Sometimes it is important to recognize that curiosity for its own sake is not necessarily a bad thing. More on this in another post.

Finally, the Ultimate Human Ecology may also be essential to bridging the gap between modern science and ancient cultures. Using the Ultimate Human Ecology would allow policy-makers, economists, anthropologists, planners, and scientists to protect disappearing aboriginal cultures while simultaneously gaining humility and a better understanding their human values. Questioning why the policy-makers, economists, anthropologists, planners, and scientists want to help, and then what it means to them, would clarify if the underlying reason was profit or just good intentions. But even good intentions are not enough. Using the Ultimate Human Ecology would help them be observant enough to recognize whether the aboriginal culture wanted anything from them in the first place. The “Western” or scientific-worldview-based world has often imposed itself on aboriginal cultures without really understanding their values. Recognizing the non-tangible spiritual worldview of old cultures is important for preventing this. Bridging this gap between cultural values would result in a reciprocal advantage to both cultures—Learning from age-old ways of life as well as helping preserve these cultures in an ever-industrializing world.

The Ultimate Human Ecology is not easy. It can be difficult to grasp, and it treads on the sword edge between science and spirituality. But that sword edge is actually quite blunt. Science and spirituality are just different ways of explaining the same world. They cannot be combined because they occur on different planes. They are both integral parts to all of the decisions, questions, and beliefs in every discipline. The interdisciplinary approach of Human Ecology would be significantly improved by applying the Ultimate Human Ecology.

A once "ornamental" northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) on someone's lawn, now grown amongst a forest of other trees (Pinus strobus to the right). The nearby foundation of the house is still visible (Compass Harbor, Bar Harbor, Maine).

  1. I use The New Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of spiritual: “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”
  2. I define scientific as the “logical or physical” aspect of the world.
  3. Whatever that means…

-       “Spiritual.” Def. 1 The New Oxford English Dictionary. 2001.

-       Vaughan, C., Nemeth, N.M., Cary, J., Temple, S. 2005. Response of a Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) Population to Conservation Practices in Costa Rica. Bird Conservation International. 15: 119-130.

-       Gould, S.J. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group. 1999.

November 18, 2011

Defining Human Ecology

Human ecology is an interesting concept—something becoming especially important in the world right now…

But… what exactly is this "Human Ecology!?" 

It turns out to be a bit complicated. Some argue that human ecology is by definition undefinable—whoa. Some firmly believe this because as humans are unique, so should the definition of human ecology be for each of us. Frankly, I think saying this is just an excuse from having to define it. I fall somewhere in the middle. I think human ecology can, and should, be defined, but it would also benefit from our unique contributions.

Here are some of my attempts to define it:

Here is a parsimonious definition, going on a word-by-word basis:

Human ecology is analogous to ecology as used in the scientific sense of the word. Where ecology is defined as the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings, human ecology is this, plus humans.


Human Ecology is the relations of humans and other organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

This definition can then be further extrapolated... 
The definition of ecology implies the recognition of all living and non-living processes, thus human ecology implies the similar recognition of living and non-living processes. By recognizing all these processes, human ecology recognizes all disciplines. Aha! 

So one might stretch this to say that: Human Ecology implies the recognition of an interdisciplinary world.

But, is human ecology the practice of this interdisciplinary approach? If so, how does one practice an interdisciplinary approach? Or, is human ecology merely the study of interdisciplinary approaches? Now you see why it has gotten so complicated. Lets see how others define human ecology. Here is the perspective from several “urban ecologists:”

Boyden (1977), Boyden and Millar (1978), and Vayda (1983) define human ecology as: the discipline that inquires into the patterns and process of interaction of humans with their environments. McDonnell and Pickett (1990) follow that “Human values, wealth, life-styles, resource use, and waste, etc. must affect and be affected by the physical and biotic environments.” They continue by saying that “The nature of these interactions is a legitimate ecological research topic and one of increasing importance.”

Human ecology in action?
Another way to define something is by seeing it in action. What better place to see human ecology in action, than at College of the Atlantic (COA), in Bar Harbor, Maine. This small liberal-arts school yields a single major—human ecology. I recently graduated from this college—hence my interest in the subject matter. Students created a website called HumJournal as a place to post their projects and classwork at COA. Visit the site, and see some examples of human ecology in action.

A graduation requirement for COA is to write a several page paper describing your definition human ecology—also known as the “Human Ecology Essay,” or "HEE."

Here is the challenge: Write your version of the Human Ecology Sentence. How would you define it in just one sentence? Post your response below. It will be interesting to see what trends emerge.

November 17, 2011

A Renaissance of Botanical Proportions

Alright, here it is.

I am ready to push this blog through a revamp--it's time to wind back up.

You may notice several changes in the coming days and weeks, but don't be alarmed...

I will expand this blog to include (in no particular order):

  1. Open-source Natural History--WHAT!?
  2. Ecological awareness and its role in our society (Nope, not green energy or permaculture)
  3. Topics in plants, ecology, and natural history, including discussions about the latest research
  4. Reviews about interesting books or articles relevant to plants, ecology, and natural history
  5. Stories and personal anecdotes from...       ...the wilderness...
  6. Continuation of experiences learning about, identifying, and using plants
  7. More about my research interests

That's about it for now.

August 29, 2011

Presentation on Little Duck Island

Sorry for my lack of posts this summer. It has been really busy and a lot of work in the Sierra Nevadas.

Here is a video of a short presentation I gave at the end of term regarding my Little Duck Island project.

April 16, 2011

Plant Identification

Hypericum spp. (Photo: Matt Dickinson)
       I have been trying to focus on finishing the identification of the pressed plant collection from Little Duck Island. Jordan Chalfant (another student) and Matthew Dickinson have been a tremendous help with this. I have also sent out some of the more difficult specimens to local botanists such as Glen Mittelhauser, Jill Weber, Sal Rooney, and Arthur Haines. Glen, Jill, and Sal are some of the co-authors on a recent book: The Plants of Acadia National Park.
Arthur Haines is co-author on The Flora of Maine, and the author of the soon to be printed Flora Novae Angliae (Flora of New England). I am indebted to these botanists' wonderful generosity and help with identifying the LDI plants.
Streptopus lanceolatus from LDI (Photo: Matt Dickinson)

Monotropa uniflora from LDI (Photo: Matt Dickinson)

February 7, 2011

Little Duck Island, Goldenrods, and more

Check the Little Duck Island tab above. I'll be updating it shortly with more.
Also, I am working on another webpage for making a vegetative key to Goldenrods. Check the tab above for a link to that site. That should be up in the next few weeks.

I will be back soon.

January 3, 2011

Back to school

I'm back to school now, ready to begin term. I'm taking a class on plant communities that I am very psyched about. It should be a good opportunity to continue expanding on botany and ecology by directly applying the two. I look forward to trying to apply this class to the island work I've been doing.